Open Meeting Law
Following the requirements of the Open Meeting Law is very important for school board members. School districts depend upon the members of their governing board and other committees to maintain compliance with the law. The public’s trust in its school districts and the officials who govern them is at stake. Board members should take the time to read the law and retain a copy for future reference.
Open Meeting Law FAQs
The OML applies to a meeting of a quorum (Majority of the board) of the public body. What about other committees associated with the district such as a budget or curriculum committee or a school site council – do they have to follow the OML?
Contrast that with an administrative committee – say a committee of school principals appointed by the superintendent to give him or her recommendations on a given topic. That committee would not have to follow the OML since they are not an instrumentality of the board but instead are tasked by the superintendent who will, in turn, upon his or her own discretion, provide those recommendations to the board.
The question of site councils is not an easy one. Some believe that site councils, because of the authority given to them by the board and by Arizona state statute, are an instrumentality of the board and should follow the OML. However, there are some problems with this interpretation. And others have pointed out, because of the statutory makeup of the site council – including teachers, noncertified employees and the school principal – every faculty meeting could have a quorum of members of the site council in attendance, where they may be participating in school business discussions, thus triggering OML requirements. This was not an intended result of the law, and it is possible such a restrictive interpretation would be taken by the Arizona Attorney General’s Open Meeting Law Enforcement Team if they ever had to look into a complaint covering this scenario.
What are serial conversations? When are they triggered and how do they violate the law? Are email communications included in OML?
The scenario goes like this: Board member A talks to board member B about an upcoming vote and each pledge their support to the issue; there is then an agreement to approach board member C and get them on board as well, necessarily relaying the substance of board member A/B’s conversation with board member C. In this scenario, we now have three board members strung together talking and obtaining an agreement about the same matter, which is subject to board authority. This type of activity likely violates the OML. (It is the strong interpretation of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office that this DOES violate the OML, though to date we have no record of any successful prosecutions.)
The problem of serial conversations and the OML can come into a clearer focus if the discussion takes place over e-mail. In typical e-mail messages going back and forth between two people, previous messages are logged into a current message. This allows for cataloging of discussion. If such an e-mail were to spread out over a quorum of members, it may also violate the OML. In other words, board member A and board member B discuss over email a school program that will be subject to board action; board member C is forwarded the series of messages and asked to provide their input. You now have a serial conversations problem. And, worse, it is as plain as day since there is a record that has been created as evidence.
Board members should be cautioned to be careful with e-mail – certainly, ask questions and use it to get as much information as needed to be prepared to conduct board duties – but watch the conversation among a quorum and, if it is something that really warrants discussion, ask to put it on a future agenda. That kind of discussion might benefit your community, and certainly your fellow board members. Furthermore, consider disabling the control on your e-mail program that repeats previous messages in any new message when asking questions of a fellow board member – it might make your life a whole lot easier down the road.
Can issues such as the district’s organizational structure be discussed in executive sessions using the oml’s exception for personnel matters?
My board regularly has a provision on the agenda for old business where we can take up any issue we’ve dealt with previously – is this compatible with the OML?
On a related parliamentary procedure issue, a question frequently received: If someone wants to bring an issue back for reconsideration that was voted on in a previous meeting, do they have to be on the prevailing side to make the motion?
The answer is yes – from a parliamentary procedure perspective. But remember, the OML supersedes anything parliamentary rules say; if you haven’t given proper notice on your agenda that the issue will be reconsidered, it doesn’t matter if you are on the prevailing side or not, you can’t bring the matter up.
Do items on a board agenda have to be identified as “discussed, considered or decided”?
As stated above, the OML says boards must be specific as to the agenda items covered at the meeting; moreover, the OML says that the agenda should state what the board will do with each item – discussed, considered or decided.
This means that if a board agenda item is listed for “discussion” and there is no reference that the item might be subject to some action by the board, the board is precluded from taking action on that item. Because of this, some boards have put all items as “subject to possible action.”
This strategy certainly covers you from a legal standpoint, but use caution if you are doing this for controversial items that you have no intention of acting on that meeting. After all, you don’t want to panic your public if a decision on the item is months away or if the matter really isn’t a serious proposal at all, but just something that the board is exploring.
What is "the person off-the-street" test?
Many of the topics that are discussed in school district governing board meetings are complicated. Often, a board agenda item is up for decision only after the matter has been exhaustively discussed in many other meetings and, because of that, the board and the administration have an intimate familiarity with the issue.
It is because of this, and a general penchant for brevity, that board agendas often contain shorthand descriptions as to items to be considered – descriptions that while understandable to the board, administration and even the school staff may not be understandable to the average person without insider knowledge. School districts do not do this on purpose, but it does happen. Boards and administrators should know that an agenda item that is not sufficiently descriptive to inform the average, off-the-street person as to what is to be discussed, considered or decided is a violation of the OML.
This is best conveyed through example. Suppose that the board would like to talk about the alleged inequities between the girls athletic programs with the boys athletic programs. If this is so, would the following descriptions work in accurately describing that discussion?:
- Discussion of District Athletic Programs
- Sporting Equipment Report on Boys and Girls Athletic Programs
The answer to each of the above is “no,” the agenda item is not descriptive enough for the discussion. In the first bullet, the agenda description is far too broad, not giving any detail to let the public know what is really the focus. With the second one, the problem is the narrowness of the description which may preclude broader discussion that the board would like to have. What if the issue includes apportionment of coaches or court/field time?
A better description that covers the item would be the following:
- Discussion of District Athletic Programs With Regard to Correct Share of Resources Between Boys and Girls Sports
Remember the “off-the-street person” in making your agenda. That is certainly the perspective that the Arizona Attorney General’s Office will take in determining whether you broke the OML.
Some other things to avoid, in order to keep the “person off-the-street” perspective:
- Don’t use “legaleze” – don’t just refer to a statute by cite or even by name, if that name is not commonly understood.
- Don’t use acronyms. Education-types love acronyms – IDEA, AYP, FAPE, CSF, ADM, 504. Remember your public is not familiar with these terms, even if you are.
What should happen if you get "off" agenda during a board meeting?
It may be one without intent, but a violation is a violation. It falls to each member of the board and the administration to constantly remind themselves that they must keep their discussions within the confines of the stated agenda description. Boards may choose to appoint – not formally, but informally – one person be the designated “watchdog” to ensure that the board stays on its discussion point. (That doesn’t absolve the rest of the board or administration from paying attention of course.) It is one method to make sure an honest mistake doesn’t result in a significant violation and, yes, money out of everyone’s pocket.
What is the superintendent/board member report exception of the open meeting law and what is its effect?
- The summary is listed on the agenda
- The public body “does not propose, discuss, deliberate or take legal action at that meeting on any matter in the summary unless the specific matter is properly noticed for legal action.”
This allows a board member or superintendent to provide a quick update on issues in which the regular notice requirements have not been met. As the statute clearly states, there is to be absolutely no discussion on the item.
If something in the superintendent or board member report piques the interest of the board, can follow-up questions or discussion take place?
However, if this has not happened, the board must deal with the issue just as they would if a member of the public brought up an issue, not on the agenda on the open call to the public: either direct staff to get more information OR place it on a future agenda for discussion or action. Under no circumstances should the board be having lengthy discussions about something that has been covered under a Superintendent’s Report (unless of course there is sufficient notice by listing the item with sufficient clarity separately on the agenda).
This exception in the Open Meeting Law does not exist to cover substantive issues that will foster great interest and discussion among board members.
Examples of issues that might be covered under one of these types of reports:
- The varsity basketball team just returned from an important tournament and the superintendent wishes to inform the board of the results.
- A board member attended the National School Boards Association Annual Conference and wanted to let the other board members know how it went (remember to watch the discussion).
- An unanticipated discovery of important information has been just received by the district (after the board agenda had gone out) and the Superintendent wants to inform the board members about it (in this instance the Superintendent should caution that this cannot be discussed at this time but it will be on the next agenda for discussion).
Our district routinely allows other persons to give reports, such as the principals or the transportation director. Can these persons avail themselves of the OML notice exception for board member/Superintendent reports?
For instance, if a principal report is to be given about the status of a search for a music teacher, that item must be listed on the agenda under the principal’s report item. This is different than for superintendent or board member reports.
In short, because a specific exception has been created for board member and superintendent reports to be given without complying with the strict notice requirements of the Open Meeting Law, that exception does not exist for other employees or individuals.
If a principal or other individual has an important issue to discuss that has just come up – after the agenda has already gone out – it is suggested that that issue can be discussed by the superintendent or board member in their report, with a notation to have it put on a future agenda for full discussion by the board.
How can I get a copy of ASBA’s open meeting law handbook?
The Arizona School Boards Association publishes a comprehensive guide to assist school governing boards and their various committees and councils to conduct business in accordance with the Arizona Open Meeting Law. It is available to members and the public for $25. Order a copy of ASBA’s Open Meeting Law Handbook on the ASBA bookstore.
“The Arizona Opening Meeting Law: A Pocket Reference for School Boards, Committees, and Councils” includes three sections:
- Part One provides a brief guide for school board members and other civic leaders in public education;
- Part Two provides the text of the Open Meeting Law as of September 2010;
- Part Three provides the text of Chapter 7 of the Agency Handbook as prepared by the Office of the Arizona Attorney General, the primary enforcer of Arizona’s Open Meeting Law. The Agency Handbook was substantially revised in May 2001 and the insertion here reflects those changes.
If I have additional questions about the open meeting law, who should I contact?
Generally, district superintendents can answer questions regarding the Open Meeting Law. Board members who have additional questions regarding this law may contact Nick Buzan, ASBA Director of Legal and Policy Services.
Order a Copy of ASBA’s Open Meeting Law Handbook.
To request an Open Meeting Law training, contact Nick Buzan, ASBA Director of Legal and Policy Services.